Hosted and edited by Arita Balaram. Guest featured in episode 3 is Fredrick D. Kakinami Cloyd.
Drop that Hyphen is As[I]Am’s podcast where hosts will be in conversation with artists and activists around the country about their work and how they think about social justice topics. In this episode, Arita and Fred discuss intersections of race, nation, and generation when thinking about identity construction. Questions about identity affirmation, the ‘Americanization’ of identity, and functionality of categories come up as Fred and Arita discuss their own backgrounds and relationships to social justice spaces. Listen to it on this page or on our SoundCloud!
Fredrick combines stories from ancestors with diverse academic and literary genres to interrogate memory, identity, alienation, and the loss of history through intergenerational adultism and ageism and bring a Black Pacific archive to visibiity. His book– Dream of the Water Children: Memory and Mourning in the Black Pacific, will be published by 2Leaf Press (NY) in Fall 2015. He presently lives in San Francisco.
Arita Balaram is the content editor of As[I]Am. She is an Indo-Caribbean activist from the Bronx. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Critical Psychology at CUNY Graduate Center, studying racial/ethnic identity development, multiracial coalition building, and postcolonial critiques of psychology. She is especially interested in the knowledge that comes from diasporas, and has spent time in South Africa learning about the history of Indians in Durban. You can follow her on twitter @AritaBita.
Thanks to the musicians featured on this show, Go Yama. Click on the link to check out more of their music.
TRANSCRIPT (by Catherine Thuruthiyil)
[background music playing]
Arita (host): Welcome to the third episode of As[I]Am’s Drop That Hyphen. My name is Arita and I’m a content editor here at Project As[I]Am. I’m also a graduate student at CUNY Graduate Center where I study critical psychology. Today I am talking to Fred who you might recognize from Episode 2 of our podcast on Violence and Memory. Today we are going to be talking about the intersections of Race, Nation, and Generation. We’re recording this conversation over Skype so please excuse any issues with the sound. I’m gonna hand it over to Fred so he can introduce himself.
Fred: Yes, and I am a writer—freelance writer—but I’ve been writing on cultural oppression topics for a long time and I’ve done diversity consulting and run workshops on intercultural communication. I’ve done Japanese and English language teaching and cultural communication. So I’ve kind of been in that cultural teaching realm for probably around…well, over 40 years. And I recently finished my first book, so my life is kind of changed from that book that I’ve just finished. It’s due out this coming fall…so…you know…it’s kind of a new area for me, as far as speaking as an author, but that’s where I am now.
A: Thanks for talking to me today, Fred. Fred and I met for the first time during As[I]Am’s teleconference on anti-Blackness…and this happened right around the time that the grand jury decisions had come out about the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases…and we felt like it was really important to gather via Google Hangouts. So, I was in New York and Fred was in California and we gathered to talk about confronting anti-Blackness in Asian American communities and how to build meaningful solidarity with other racial justice movements. And at the time we had connected about…our particular identity categories and how they challenge what it means to be Asian American and also bring up really critical questions about our relationships to other Asian Americans and other racial groups. So, I identify as Indo–Caribbean and Fred identifies as Black Japanese and so our relationship to Asian Americans and to other racial groups is really different I think than…people who don’t occupy the bodies that we do or the identities that we do. And someone that I think writes really beautifully about race and nation and identity is Stuart Hall. So, I just wanted to bring him into our virtual room because what he talks about in terms of identity construction and cultural representation being these processes that at the core are about power really strikes me, right? So that these processes at the core involve the play of power and power to define who is included and excluded. And I’m curious Fred if have any reactions to that. I just think that it brought up so much for me in terms of my identity and the kind of identity policing that happens when I meet people and when I talk to even other Asian Americans…so I’m just curious if that brought up anything for you.
F: Yeah, definitely I think that’s actually the crux of the issue when it comes to politics…well the politics of rights and you know modern society—globally. You know, of course, colonization kind of expanded it globally. But the whole idea of “having rights” or being “entitled to rights” or “who doles out the rights” and “what kind of rights are we talking about”. Then we have these categories that have been invented, as far as I’m concerned. Invented—not just by, like a master narrative, but by—you know—each nation, each culture—you know—time and memorial. So, it’s a big problem as far as how seriously solid and static and absolute that someone considers their identity. And I think that’s where the battle is as far as I’m concerned. Everywhere I go, that is the issue. You know, “Why are you calling me that? You shouldn’t call me that!” or “We’re all human” or “No, you’re not Japanese. You’re Okinawan” or “I am this, I am that”, “No you’re not, no you’re not” and then “This is what you’re entitled to”. So it is exactly about interplay of power and you can’t really tell someone, “You know, you’re taking your identity too seriously”, right? [laughter] Because it depends on how much they’ve suffered or how much their families suffered and history itself and what they consider themselves as—and it may not be that solid but it may be expressed strongly. And since we don’t know which one that is, it creates problems inter-culturally. Now this is what we’re dealing with, either as policy, like on paper or in the courts or in these community meetings where they’re trying to hash things out, or you know, interpersonally within a family or whatever. So, you know, for me it’s really annoying sometimes when I’m speaking, like for instance, to a Japanese person, if they say “well, I am Japanese, and we are single race”. You know? How far do I want to now argue with this person about that…issue. Otherwise I wouldn’t care about them telling me, a Black Japanese, that I’m not pure Japanese. I want to bring it up, “Well, you’re not as Japanese as you think you are, you know. It’s a made up identity”. But then, when you say that, of course, it’s offensive because even though it’s made up, people think that means it’s trivial. Well, it’s not trivial; it’s just that it’s not something you could lord over me as something that’s been lasting forever since the beginning of human life. So, for me, it is really like being aware myself about how to choose our battles and how do we want to discuss it or debate with this other person and what are we doing it for.
A: Yeah, I think this point you make about history and politics, right? Like taking really seriously historical and political contexts because…so…there was this Washington Post article that came out last year and so I’m Indo-Caribbean—my parents are from Guyana and Trinidad and typically people meet me and I say that I’m Indo-Caribbean and I have to give them this whole lesson on colonialism, right? [laughter] And indentured servitude..And I explain how my family came to the Caribbean in the 1800s so we don’t know what part of India we’re from. And so, this Washington Post article travel writer fell asleep on a train and woke up in Richmond Hill, which is a huge community of Indo-Caribbean people in Queens, New York. And I grew up going to Richmond Hill all the time to get, you know, doubles, which is this staple Indo-Caribbean food, or to get Bollywood movies—just to be around other people who were Indo-Caribbean. And it’s sort of how I learned what it meant to be Indo-Caribbean in a lot of ways. And so this travel writer fell asleep on the A Train and he wrote this article about discovering Indo-Caribbeans in Queens, right? And how come he didn’t know about this community. It’s really, I mean, largely invisible. And so he writes about it—I’ll just read a little bit from it—so he says, you know, “nearby 101st Avenue has considerable flavor but nothing approaching the bewitching carpet ride of Liberty Avenue,” [laughter] Right. “The Little Guyana Strip runs from 104th to 130th Street. I noticed an Indo-Guyanese presence before and after these streets, but the cultural dynamism began to dissipate.” Hmmm. “I kept hearing a wild type of music that I later learned is called ‘chutney’ It contains sounds of the Far East, but has a faster tempo and a more pulsating beat, reflecting the Caribbean influence” And so, for me, I grew up listening to chutney music and I never associated it with this “wildness” that he does. And so I just think that, you know, where does the power lie here? For so long, I’ve had to sort of defend this category, Indo-Caribbean, right? So, when I introduce myself to people I say you know my family’s from—you know, the typical question you get if you sort of look racially ambiguous or if you know, aren’t white in the U.S. is “where are you from?” and I’ll say “Trinidad and Guyana is where my family’s from” and I’ve had to do a lot of explaining and a lot of defending why I go by this identity, Indo-Caribbean. And so, this article was one, you know, piece that I’ve really been thinking about but also recently with this Rachel Dolezal case, right, which had a lot of people thinking about the fluidity of identity categories which I think is appealing to a lot of people—this idea that race doesn’t matter anymore, that identity is so fluid and the self is constantly in flux I think is really appealing to some people, to a lot of people. But then where does power fit in here? So, for me, constantly having to defend my identity as an Indo-Caribbean person is really different than from someone who, you know, came from a white family, was born into white privilege and is then assuming the identity of a Black woman. So I just think this piece about history and politics and context really matters, right? You’ve heard about the case, I’m sure, and I wonder, I’m curious about any reactions you had to it cause I think—I saw some surprising reactions to it with people saying, “her identity didn’t really matter; what mattered more was her politics”.
F: Yeah, it’s a slippery slope. We can say well, you know, it doesn’t matter, it’s her politics are most important. Is there a trivializing of that identity or is it just the fact that okay, well, it’s not the point, you know, we’re not all going to be the same identity, we’re not supposed to love every identity, so what’s the point of saying that? And then we can’t understand intentions anyway. So intention really has not much to do with it because, you know, anyone can always deny, you know, terrible intentions or unthoughtful in my intentions so it’s really always about, you know, what needs to happen. And for me, it’s not about whether everyone is correct or not. Not everybody cares anyway. But in saying, if someone says that, especially like a white person that’s outside of the group that’s being talked about, you know, what’s going on there. So that, to me, is more of the question rather than whether they have everything, have all the right information. No one can know every culture that has ever existed on the entire face of the earth since the beginning of time. You were talking about defending your identity, you know, I’m sure you know you have to pick when you’re going to do that and with whom. But then, in the context of what you were just talking about, well, umm, you know, what matters is the politics. That’s like someone told me, “well, I don’t see you”. This is really different from what you just said, right? Someone goes, “well, I don’t see you as Black Japanese, I see you as human”. And I just told them, “I find that insulting. So, either I’m human or Black Japanese. So you’re saying that Black Japanese are not human”. So that’s the problem with that statement. They didn’t really mean it but I always think that the issue should be pointed out. It might be different in the case of someone saying, “well, what matters is the politics”. Okay, yes. We’re working on a social justice project together, you know, if I’m working with 25 different peoples, 50 different cultural backgrounds and mixes. Then it’s important whether, you know, for that actual piece of work that, you know, all of the differences are acknowledged. What matters is what is the issue we’re all working on and we’re trying to work together to change together.
A: I’d be interested, Fred, if you wanted to talk more about this idea that to be human is to not be Black Japanese—that’s to not affirm an identity–a racial identity. And I know you wanted to talk about the beauty pageant that recently happened in Japan.
F: Yes, I think what I get from the beauty pageant and Ms Miyamoto, who is Black Japanese who is nominated, is getting out of this is Japan’s own self-image is being questioned. And I think that it’s not just Japan, right? It think it’s a wonderful, from a global standpoint as well as from an American, because one of the things that—in fact the word you just used, “affirming an identity”—I tell people, “I don’t want my identity to be affirmed—I want it to be known or acknowledged”. Affirmation is like the furthest thing that I want. And to me, affirmation is very much an American thing, and I think it goes back to the first things you were mentioning when we began today is the whole idea of the Americanization of identity and how we “do” identity or think of identity. And then it becomes about affirmation and entitlement and I don’t particularly need to be affirmed by what other people think that you might feel like you’re wanting to affirm your identity. Or wanting to be acknowledged or some problem with self-esteem [laughter] and I’m thinking “no, it’s none of those, but that’s what you’re thinking”. And the same thing with Ms. Miyamoto, Ariana Miyamoto, you know, Time and Newsweek, and New York Times, Independent UK and all these people have been writing about her because it is a surprise but I think how she is responding has been pretty excellent in the face of how people think of identity itself, not just the fact that she is Black Japanese and going against it’s grain. One of the things is the caption in the New York Times article from May 29th. She says, “The reporter always asks me, ‘What part of you is most like a Japanese?’ Now I always answer, ‘But I am Japanese’”. And the fact is that we also mechanize, so we think of people as a combination of parts, so it’s very mechanical. It’s a thing-oriented thing. And then to the Japanese it’s a part of her. But you can kind of just mix and match or take things out. So if you eat miso soup everyday, that part of you is Japanese but, but then that goes away the minute you eat a steak—right? That’s the assumption. So it’s all very strange. I’m trying to link a whole bunch of problems when it comes to that and I think that Ariana Miyamoto is doing a great job in responding to questions like “what part of you is Japanese?” and then they focus on what she’s going through, you know, what backlash she’s gotten and she keeps saying “well, a lot of people support me. Why don’t you ask me about that?”.
A: Yeah, I mean this idea that inhabiting multiple identities is sort of something that makes you vulnerable versus something that’s a strength, is something I was thinking about when you were talking about that—that “I’m this fragmented person because I identify as Indo-Caribbean, also Canadian because I was born in Montreal and American” and so this idea that I’m a fragmented person and not a whole person.
F: Yeah, I think that’s game of the colonial mindset, right? That we’re all using. But how it always plays out is always in a hierarchy. So, you have these whole, single identities—American or Japanese—and the minute you bring in difference it becomes “lesser” or “worse” or “more confused” or whatever. So difference…how we consider difference is the issue, as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to power—power relations. Even within ourselves…you know, the response that I got is more important than what people make of it and that I don’t need to justify. You know, if I encounter someone who is trying to make me lesser I just try to flip it and say, “you know, you have—you have the problem here. It’s not my problem…I don’t have parts, right, I don’t have parts—I’m a person”. And I think this is where people like Ariana Miyamoto are important because she could use that platform as something she could say, “Look, I am Japanese. You’re the one that has a problem with excluding me and then saying that you’re Japanese and I’m not when I’m saying I’m Japanese, you still don’t want to listen. No, it’s your problem”.
A: And what’s interesting, I think, is that a lot of that nuance gets lost in the American context because here I feel like categories are seen as so static and homogenized, right, and categories don’t move. They sort of stay in-place and they don’t change over time and context. I don’t think there’s as much attention to how categories actually change and shift over time and also how they change within a family, right? For me, my parents are like “What’s this term Indo-Caribbean at all? I don’t know what this is. I’m Trinidadian, I’m Guyanese”. And Indo-Caribbean was a term that was really invented by those of us who live in the U.S. and Canada who desired this category that represented roots in India and in the Caribbean. So, I see even that disconnect, right? Where my parents and their conceptualization of identity and also my relatives who are still in the islands have a really different idea about what it means to be Indo-Caribbean and a lot of that has to do with, you know, their relationship to other people on those islands, right? I mean I think there’s a spectrum, right? Some people identify really strongly with their Indian roots and some people identify more strongly with a national identity so it’s really hard for me to even make any conclusions about Indo-Caribbeans because people who I consider Indo-Caribbean wouldn’t even consider themselves Indo-Carribeans so I also don’t want to project my own ideas about identity onto other people. It did help me, though, make sense of, you know, the multiple-rootedness that I feel characterizes my experience as an immigrant in the U.S. falling outside of mainstream identity categories. But I do think that this piece about generation helps shed light on to how categories change and even differ within a family.
F: You know, my mother is Japanese and Chinese and Austrian in her heritage but it was never a big concern to her but it was in Japan when the war started and everybody that’s white and anybody who is Chinese—both of her mother’s identities were the ones that were, you know, demonized because of the war. So, she was sent to an international school for non-Japanese. She was teased and beaten up. And when she came to this country she asserted her Japanese-ness, right? So, when we talk, she doesn’t think that they’re that important “Oh, it’s important because other people make it important” or “It becomes important in America because everyone is so different and everyone is chasing after the rights”. And I thought that was a really interesting—great, interesting statement—that she made and I do think it has to do with, you know—like in diversity circles there’s called the “Oppression Olympics”. So you have different people, any sort of difference is competing with each other for those entitlements and rights. So yeah..I do think it’s generational.
A: I think this piece about how categories function is really important so I think a lot of people spend years debating whether race categories matter or whether national categories matter and I think a more appropriate question is “how do they function?”. So, you know, government policy, for example, draws boundaries around particular communities to label one as “threatening” and another as “vulnerable” and that’s really important and I think it’s at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds right now surrounding police brutality and racial violence—it’s not like these things are new but it’s sort of at the forefront of public consciousness right now. And something I’ve been thinking about is when boxes feel empowering versus when they feel constraining. So, for me, the first time I became familiar with the category “Indo-Caribbean” was actually when I was applying to college, right? So um…I remember going into my sister’s room and asking her “what did you put on your college application under ‘race’?”; And before that, honestly, I had been told to put down “Asian” to put down “Pacific-Islander” to put down “Black” because I think a lot of people associate the Caribbean with Black people and they don’t really necessarily know that there are different racial groups in the Caribbean. So, I mean, I’ve been told to put everything down but white essentially, right? And when I became familiar with this term it was really empowering for me, I mean, it felt like I finally had the language to talk about my identity, I had a name—I could name my identity and I felt like I was resisting erasure by naming myself as Indo-Caribbean I was resisting also American projections of identity categories onto myself. So…you know, in this way to be able to have a box to claim felt really great but I think what happens when those boundaries around an identity category become so fixed and static is when they can really feel constraining. So I think, these are sort of just ideas that are brewing in my head right now around functionality of categories and I think they’ll continue to be important, especially in this moment and in the future because, you know, there are these projections that in 2030 America will be this mixed-race utopia and everyone will be just a mix—a mix of backgrounds so that race won’t matter anymore, right? So I think these questions will continue to remain relevant.
F: Yeah, I think so because they are linked to larger forces, they’re not just personal. So…a lot of people want to make racism personal—they don’t view it as social, historical, and political. We’re not born with all these things, we learn them or we do them or perform them, you know?
Narrator: This third episode of Project As[I]Am’s Drop That Hyphen was made possible by the hard work of editor and host Arita Balaram and staff contributor Fredrick Kakinami Cloyd as well as our senior editor Jordan Alam and newest editors Tessa Kim and Alvin Kim.
This podcast was created in partnership with Project As[I]Am. Project As[I]Am is an online Asian American social justice publication aiming to challenge dominant media narratives around what it means to be Asian American. Through writing, art, and critical discussion, we are building a community of opinionated artists and activists and giving them a platform to share and be compensated for their work. To ask a question or to find out how you can contribute, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.